Jenny Simon proudly gives a tour of all that’s missing from the rooms at the Birchwood, a motel on Route 1 north of Camden that was built in the 1940s but now has a very 2014 sensibility. There are no irons, coffee makers or mini-fridges in the rooms. Skipping energy suckers or landfill fillers like these is what helped the motel become one of Maine’s roughly 125 state-certified “environmental leaders,” aka sustainable lodging establishments. “People don’t use these things!” Simon says. “When you take them away, they don’t even miss them.”
This doesn’t mean you have to leave the Birchwood wrinkled; Simon has a couple of “very nice Rowentas” in the office for guests to borrow, which to her mind beats having 30 cheaper irons on hand that will be bound for the landfill sooner rather than later. Instead of making coffee in their rooms, wasting everything from power to packaging, guests can come down to the hospitality suite for her “super strong hot coffee,” made with beans from Green Tree Coffee & Tea in Lincolnville. And if someone really must have a mini-refrigerator in their room, Simon or her husband Eric will provide one from a stash in the office.
When they bought the business 12 years ago, a pair of New York transplants with no hotelier experience, they towed the standard motel/hotel line for a couple of years. Their grand plan, after they fell in love with Maine on a visit, was to get here. The hotel was, she said, the answer to the bigger question, “how can we stay here?”
After a couple of years, they started bringing their own personal philosophy into the May-to-October business. “We asked ourselves, if it wasn’t necessary, why was it there?” she said.
There are 1,332 lodging establishments in Maine, according to the state, and in addition, 320 licensed campgrounds. Anyone seeking to really ramp up the green in their vacation might land in a tent or a yurt (see sidebar). But increasingly, hotels, motels and inns around the country, and around Maine – an early national leader in the green hotel movement – are making serious efforts to go green. The Maine program, started in 2002 during then-Gov. John Baldacci’s administration, made the state an early adapter, according to Peter Cooke, who ran the program for the Department of Environmental Protection. Maine was the third state, behind Vermont and Florida, to establish a certification program. And it inspired others. “At least a dozen states have replicated it verbatim,” Cooke said.
For many, the original impetus was about savings on the energy and waste costs associated with running a place where people come and go with the sunrise and sunset. “The hospitality sector is not the most polluting sector in Maine by any stretch,” Cooke said. “But the sector itself was so eager to move beyond and the opportunities were so big, we thought the businesses would flock to it. Which is what they did.”
But these days going green is not just about saving money, it’s about making it. American consumers have shown an increasing interest in staying in lodging that can rightfully claim to be sustainable. Industry experts point to the example of TripAdvisor’s GreenLeaders program as proof. The popular website for travelers seeking everything from hotels to rental cars added a separate, green-designated listing of travel options for American users in April 2013, just in time for Earth Day. When Travelocity polled consumers about their usage of the new site, results showed that 23 percent of respondents had made a deliberate choice to go eco-friendly in their travel choices, and 85 percent felt better about their trip after doing so.
“I see that as a real game changer and evidence of the legitimacy of the sustainability movement within the lodging industry,” said Glenn Hasek, publisher and editor of the Green Lodging News, an industry publication.
This spring TripAdvisor added a set of European and Canadian green listings, citing strong consumer response.
A SEA BAG ON EVERY BED
It’s smart business in an era when the seriously environmentally minded traveler is likely to worry nearly as much about the carbon footprint involved with getting to Europe as they do the airfare. And on a local level, hotel owners who focus on sustainability say they’re finding it matters to their customers, particularly their younger customers.
“It’s not every single customer saying it every single time,” said Tim Karu, who owns and operates the Mercury Inn in Portland, a Victorian mansion revamped to be as sustainable as possible. “But we will get a lot of calls or we’ll hear it from people sitting around our breakfast table saying what is appealing to them about our inn. And if we’re booked, we get customers asking, do we know any place with a similar ethos.”
That ethos includes the no-irons, no-coffeemaker rule. “There are people for whom that is just not going to work,” he said. “But there are a lot of people for whom a bed and breakfast isn’t going to work. And one of the great things about Portland is there is room for everybody.”
Karu and his husband took over the former Wild Iris Inn on State Street last year. Much of the “greening” conversion had been completed by the former owner, but they added all low-energy LED lights and repainted with Mythic Paint (non-toxic, low odor and sold with the promise of no off-gassing). The rooms feature decorative “M” pillows made from recycled sails by Sea Bags and vintage or locally made furniture. Every breakfast at this green hotel is based around what is available locally. These choices were driven by personal politics, but also good business choices.
“On top of feeling morally that we wanted to do it, I saw that there was an interest in it,” Karu said. “I thought there was no way it could hurt to bring that to our hotel, particularly in this town.”
It’s not necessarily a game changer for a majority of visitors, says Rauni Kew, who doubles as the public relations manager and the Green Program manager at The Inn by the Sea, a longtime national leader in green lodging. But she said it matters to corporate groups, an increasing number of which have policies about only staying at environmentally friendly lodging, and she sees the impact of that in bookings. Feedback from guests is also steady, strong and positive.
POINTS FOR GOOD POLICY
For Simon, the revelation came sometime in the middle of tearing up an old carpet to replace it early in their tenure there. “That’s when we went, ‘What are we doing?'” she said. They hated hotel carpets. They also hated Venetian blinds. “They’re horrible!” Simon said. “They don’t degrade.” The carpets were replaced with sustainable flooring that looks like hardwood. The blinds went too. She pulled open a set of curtains. “These are so easily washed,” she said.
Half of the rooms still have what she calls traditional hotel furnishings. But as she was browsing an online catalogue to replace some aging pieces, she realized there was no need to order anything that had to be shipped from North Carolina (or farther). She knew a furniture maker in Hope. During his quiet months in the winter, he could make her cottage-style platform beds – these meant no need for box springs – and shelving units. “The less stuff to clean, the better it is,” she said. “And isn’t it all about clean?”
“You don’t want people coming in and sleeping on hay bales,” said Julie Churchill who oversees the Environmental Leader program for the DEP’s Office of Innovation and Assistance (Cooke left in 2012).”There is a balance. But the whole idea is that green can be incredibly attractive and a great experience. And when people stay somewhere and find out that their furniture was made in Maine and that the furniture maker lives in Hope and could make them something too, that’s good for Maine business.”
The same might happen with the bed linens, which Simon gets from Cuddledown. Or the coffee from Green Tree.
The roof of the Birchwood features solar panels, which cut the motel’s oil usage by two-thirds after it was installed in 2011, with help from a 1 percent loan through Efficiency Maine. Going solar was another way to gain points in the Environmental Leader program (other means include switching to non-chemical cleaners, better waste management, energy or water conservation, using local foods, hosting environmental education programs). You need to score 100 (and prove it) over all categories in a workbook.
“Sometimes we get people in that can’t get to 100 points,” said Churchill. “And we’ll do a site visit and give them suggestions.” After two years, the establishment needs to demonstrate it has earned 30 more points in order to be re-certified for free. Another two years and they’re supposed to be at 150 points. The incentive is to go greener and greener all the time. Kew said last time she checked, The Inn by the Sea was at 540 points. But the number and the scale doesn’t matter to her as much at this point; the inn has moved into a different phase, namely trying to collaborate with as many local farmers, fishermen, restaurants and vendors as possible to promote Maine and its products and people.
That collaboration even extends to other hotels and inns, Kew said. Normally a hotel tries to keep the secrets of its success from competitors, but on a green level, it’s crucial to share. “We are all in this together,” she said. “If someone from another hotel wants to know what we use for laundry detergent, I’ll tell him – Oasis – so they don’t have to try 12 products to figure out which is best. Now if he asked me what I was going to do for packaging next fall? I would tell him to take a hike.”
CREEPING TOWARD FARMING
At the Birchwood, a more environmentally friendly building was good, but it wasn’t enough. Simon leads a visitor around the back of the low-slung motel (her family lives in a three-story house they added onto the property) and past a flock of curious (OK, hungry) chickens to show off the latest addition, a big red barn built next to the pond the Simons made to collect stormwater runoff (more points!). Because of the barn, those rows and rows of vegetables and fruit bushes and trees planted behind the motel made visual sense; what had been seriously starting to look like a farm is now accessorized as such.
“We say we’re a ‘farmette,'” Simon said with evident satisfaction.
The rules in the garden are simple. “Can we use it for something or can nature use it for something?” she said. “Otherwise, why is it here?” The rosa rugosa hedge in front of the view of Penobscot Bay might give some pause, she said, because it’s an invasive plant, but she uses those rosehips for tea.
She picks a sprig of lavender from the lush landscape around the pond. They use it to make the cleaning spray at the Birchwood. “I figured, if I am going to clean rooms for possibly decades…” Then she leads the way to her 500 garlic plants. “I made radish top and garlic scape soup last night.” She rolled her eyes. It was that good. “I am like, ‘I am a farm-to-table rock star.'” Running a roadside motel.